The Boundary Effect

The Boundary Effect

Updated Oct 18, 2019

Have you ever said to yourself that you need to grab something in another room, only to reach that room and completely forget what you went in there for? If so, you may be the victim of what scientists call event boundaries.

In an effort to research this odd phenomenon, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame—Gabriel Radvansky—designed some tests for volunteers to perform. He asked subjects to pick up an object from one table and place it on another, once while simply walking across the room, and again while having them pass through a doorway. In the first experiment, subjects were in a virtual environment where they could not see the object after picking it up. At certain times the subject would be asked what object they were holding. What was found was that when subjects passed through a doorway, their chances of remembering the object diminished compared with when the subject performed the task in the same room.

In a second experiment, the participants moved around in a real environment, putting objects in boxes so they would remain hidden. They were again asked at certain times what object was in the box, and the data once again showed that those passing through a doorway had more difficulty remembering what they held. It would appear that the act of passing through a doorway acts as an event boundary, signaling our brain to compartmentalize the memories, making them harder to recall later on.

As Gabriel Radvansky explains:

Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an “event boundary” in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away.

To take it one step further, Gabriel tested to see if these memories are stored in a way that would be tied to the room (i.e. the surrounding environment). To do this, he had his subjects pass through multiple doorways before finally returning to the original room. Surprisingly, the subjects still had a reduced ability to recall the object they held even though they were back in the same room, suggesting that the simple act of moving into another room can be enough to diminish one’s ability to retrieve previously active memories. So next time this happens, don’t blame yourself. It’s not you, it’s the doors!